Business World, 20 October 2019


Most affluent western societies consider themselves “open societies.” Open societies swear by the values of inclusion in diversity. They shun apartheid or unequal access to social benefits based on race, color, or religion. A central tenet is the celebration of the individual over the group and of the ruled over the ruler embodied in one-man-one-vote. Open borders celebrate the fundamental right of its citizens to opt out or opt in. In the roaring 21st century, most opt in. The most envied of open societies because they are affluent and happiest by many measures, are the Scandinavian countries. Have they found the formula to render the baser human instincts recessive? Have they found the philosopher’s stone on the sustainable marriage of openness and affluence?

Time was when poor Sweden was an émigré country. In 1908, 20,000 young Swedes left for the USA. Times have changed. The Nordic countries have become the destination of choice for migrants. In the past when refugee migration was a trickle, these countries lit the candle of openness for the world, embracing more than their fair share of migrants, especially as guest workers. East Europeans and Latin Americans, fleeing mayhem and looking for work, were amply embraced. These arrivals match the natives in skin and hair color. Culturally, these migrants were largely Judeo-Christian in outlook and were willing to sublimate their identities towards the native identity. Affluent Nordic societies could then easily afford the cost of open borders, keeping its migrants’ footprints occasional and positive, such as with sports icons (Swede Zlatan Ibrahimovic or Dane Caroline Wozniacki) or with minders of jobs natives won’t touch.

The social welfare benefits they accord all insiders are, some say, generous to a fault. The natives pay through the nose for these cradle-to-the-grave entitlements, up to 50% income tax on their legal pay. Natives and migrants also receive the same benefits because open societies could not countenance apartheid. Migrants from poorer and often dysfunctional societies literally win a lottery upon attaining insider status. But that is the past. The trickle has become a tsunami. A thousand migrants is one thing; 163,000 refugee migrants arriving in Sweden in 2015 alone is another.

Scandinavian populations are small by global standards. Sweden is the largest with 10 million. These societies are clearly in the crosshairs of the migration tsunami. Nordic countries now feel rightly threatened. And it’s only partly economic. Population growth of the native Nordics is zero but that of migrants is high. Nordic peoples are realizing that they can lose something more precious than affluence but which did not seem as important when unthreatened, their “identity.” Indeed their affluence may just be the harvest of a deeply rooted “social contract.” The social contract encompasses a universe of privileges and obligations embodied in social norms enforced by a singularly law-abiding homogeneous citizenry. Swedes call this “consensus.” Outsiders see it as a well-nigh improbable “regulation from within.” Over time, the formal institutions of norm enforcement that chased away alien traits have receded into the background as abidance became second nature in the population. As Evolutionary Biology would have it, the trait of disorder has been forced into a recessive exile. Recessive, however, does not mean extinct. And in nature, order in any form tends to dissipate and must be continually be defended from the carriers of disorder welling up from the depth — free riding mutants who enjoy the benefits and don’t pay the cost. So members must also become disorder-minders. Put your garbage out on the wrong day and you will quickly be warned if not fined. Disorder minders are extremely important for the emergence and survival of the social coherence. A society whose members do not mind disorder will quickly drown in it — an apt description of failed states. Under familiar circumstances, disorder minders are “heroes.” In Evolutionary Biology, disorder minders are called “altruistic punishers.” Altruistic punishers effectively lower the cost of enforcement for the society as a whole at their own expense. They are the T-cells of ordered societies.

So the problem is not just the number. The ethnicity, color, religion, and cultures of the new migrants have radically changed. With numbers, these congregate in ethnic communities called “ghettoes,” which for some natives are “no go zones,” the better to preserve their culture from integration. A migrant female who violates tribal norms of marriage can still be killed in some parts of London. As they insist on marching to a different future, they threaten local social harmony, that precious seed of any and every future prosperity. Worse, a few of these ghetto dwellers actually despise the natives as heathens that must be destroyed. The 2017 Stockholm truck massacre and the 2015 Copenhagen shooting testify to this new unsettling reality. No wonder the tribal immune system is starting to hum.

The net economic benefit from the migration may still exceed the overall cost to the society as a whole, but this benefit and cost are very unequally distributed among the different classes of the native society. But to think that economic calculus holds the key is silly. The Brexit electoral victory was built on the fear of identity loss trumping the obvious economic benefit of EU. Secondly, the lower classes will bear the brunt of the cost while the upper classes will reap most of the benefits. A cleavage emerges between the lower classes and the upper classes who, on the whole, decide migration policies. The responses are predictable. A thousand disgruntled members of the native lower classes will manage no more than a cacophony of voices; 100,000 is a voting block. And in jurisdictions of thin pluralitarian majorities, that is enough to trigger what political scientist, Mancur Olson, called the “tyranny of the minority.” The new dissenters now loudly wear on their sleeves their once very private fears — disconcerting in concert-obsessed Scandinavia. The same now vote to punish the mainstream parties who in their minds aid and abet free riders. From the lunatic fringe, the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats won near 20% of the Sept. 9, 2018. Altruistic punishment has now turned more sinister. Anders Breivik, who in 2011 heinously mowed down 71 fellow Norwegians, insists that future Norwegians will consider him a hero.

Being from outside of Paradise — yes, that side whose intolerance and tribalism reassure the insiders how blest they are — I confess to some schadenfreude, deriving guilty pleasures from the discomfort of others. Angst has touched Paradise and misery loves company. Nordics are having to taste the old Roman potion of self-doubt: Ubinam gentium sumus? (Where in the world are we)? They have become a little bit like us, blemished, threatened and conflicted. Welcome to the human condition!